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Want to follow the money behind political ads? Good luck finding it

There is no doubt that TV ads played a major role in Tuesday's Democratic primary election for mayor, which Catherine Pugh won by only 2,574 votes over Sheila Dixon. The question is how much the outcome was shaped by the money spent on a highly sophisticated media effort for Pugh — and against Dixon.

Lots of stories I cover in media make me angry. The failure of public TV to come anywhere near living up to its promise. Cable channels that let ideology drive their coverage — and then lie about it to the public.

But few leave me actually disheartened about the role media play in our lives. Covering media aspects of Baltimore mayor's race the past three months leaves me as disheartened as I can remember being about anything on my beat.

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I have long been decrying the role of dark money, hidden persuaders and stealth media efforts to win votes and shape election outcomes. But I mainly thought about the problem as a national one, focusing on presidential and congressional races.

This spring, it got local and personal for me, as I tried to report on media, money and the mayor's race and found that some media outlets that portray themselves as serving the public in their political coverage were actually withholding from voters information they should have in a timely fashion.

An estimated $5 million was spent on political advertising on broadcast TV just in April, according to Dan Joerres, president of WBAL-TV. Overall spending on Baltimore broadcast TV since the start of the year: $7 million. That doesn't necessarily include all the super PAC buys. And it includes no cable.

There is no doubt that TV ads played a major role in Tuesday's Democratic primary election for mayor, which Catherine Pugh won by only 2,574 votes over Sheila Dixon. The question is how much the outcome was shaped by the money spent on a highly sophisticated media effort for Pugh — and against Dixon.

Unfortunately, we might never know the answer to that because of vague and often toothless disclosure regulations, especially from the Federal Communications Commission.

Suggesting the kind of power TV ads can have, Pugh spent more than $100,000 in launching a broadcast TV ad campaign, then surged from 2 points behind Dixon to 9 points ahead in a two-week period, according to a Baltimore Sun poll done in March.

And of the voters who made up their minds about a candidate during that time, 45 percent decided to back Pugh. Before that TV buy, less than half that percentage was breaking her way. Pugh never trailed again.

It seems to me voters should know all they can about ads like that.

Sales orders, which are required to include buyer information, are supposed to be posted "immediately," according to the FCC.

"The request and disposition must be placed in the file as soon as possible, which the Commission has determined is immediately absent extraordinary circumstances," the regulation says.

But "immediately" is a word that can be interpreted more than one way.

"That's definitely a loophole," said Jenn Topper, communications director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to make government and politics more accountable and transparent. "The FCC left it up to the broadcasters to determine what 'immediately' means. So, in some cases, you have people who are uploading them within 24 hours, some doing it at end of the week and some at the end of the month. [The stations] get to determine when they go online."

In Baltimore, the difference was dramatic.

WBAL, the Hearst-owned NBC affiliate, interprets "immediately" as being within 24 hours. WBAL was consistently the first station to put ad-buy information online.

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On the other hand, WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate in Baltimore, was putting ad-buy information online a week after commercials had started to air in some cases. Several ads that started airing April 19, according to the sales orders, were not posted online until the afternoon of the election, April 26, after many people had already voted.

William Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF, said the station normally tries to post orders "within 48 hours." But in the final days of an election cycle, there are often more sales and it sometimes take longer to post all the orders online, he added.

Cable was worse. A Jan. 29 ruling by the FCC requires cable operators, such as Comcast, which dominates the Baltimore market, to post online, but gives them until December to start doing so.

A Comcast spokeswoman said the company would comply with the FCC order. Time-Warner Cable, which does not have a presence in Baltimore, already has information online.

My frustration in trying to access political ads placed at Comcast involved getting conflicting information, depending on which company representative I spoke to. When I asked one representative if I could go to a Comcast office and look at paper copies on the filing, he said I could make an appointment to do so. But he added that I was only going to find paperwork there on one candidate, Pugh.

At the time, five mayoral candidates were airing ads on Comcast in Baltimore.

I was not alone in finding it difficult to get information about ads appearing on Comcast. Libby Watson, a staff writer at Sunlight, reported a similar experience dealing with the company's D.C. operation in an article titled "What happens when you try to discover who's behind dark money ads."

After being misdirected to a locked office and a Comcast retail outlet, Watson finally found a site behind an Enterprise car rental outlet. A Comcast worker let her in another locked door and searched out PDF information for her on a group called Protect America's Consumers. Since there was no printer, Watson had to take photos of the screen with her smartphone or rely on notes.

"My interest in this group was sparked in the same way it would be for many average citizens," she wrote. "Watching TV, I saw an ad for a group that I hadn't heard of and wondered what the deal was. But thanks to the utterly arcane disclosure policies still in place, I had to take a morning and a Metro to find out even basic details about the ad buy — and I still have no idea who's truly behind this group."

Four super PACs were pumping money into the Baltimore mayor's race, and getting even the most basic information on how much money they and the candidates themselves were spending for ads online, on cable or broadcast TV was a struggle.

Take just the Pugh-Dixon duel.

In her victory speech, Pugh gave the impression that her campaign was a loosely organized, passionate but amateurish operation.

"We couldn't even get a campaign manager until Feb. 1," she said. "We didn't have a finance chair or campaign whatever those people are called who raise money for you. And so we did it mostly by volunteers."

But, in fact, she had one of the most successful media consultants in the country writing, directing and producing her TV ads in Dave Heller, president of Main Street Communications.

Heller's D.C.-based firm has run up one of the highest winning percentages nationally for its Democratic candidates, including such current or former members of Congress as Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson Jr.

Plus, Pugh benefited from a super PAC, Clean Slate Baltimore, attacking Dixon online since December with ads reminding viewers of her criminal past. Thanks to Clean Slate and Main Street Productions, Pugh had what I judged to be the most effective ads — for herself and against her primary opponent. I wonder how many of the 2,574 votes that was worth.

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Clean Slate, which in addition to attacking Dixon also supported Pugh in some of its TV ads, was fined $55,000 on April 19 by the Maryland State Board of Elections for not filing finance reports on time that disclosed where its money was going.

The PAC ultimately reported spending $223,000 on TV ads to benefit Pugh. It had received $354,000 in contributions from the Mid-Atlantic Laborers Political Fund, a union that has endorsed Pugh, according to reporting done by Luke Broadwater, city hall reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

But those are only pieces of the puzzle. Given the current rules of disclosure, you can never get the full amount or all the sources of the dark money. Online buys do not require any disclosure. Cable disclosure is an obstacle course. And I am not excited by the fact that cable ad buys should be online by the end of the year, given the way some Baltimore TV stations slow-walked filing based on their interpretations of "immediately."

Nor is this a matter of water under the bridge now that the primary election is over.

Baltimore TV has been filled in recent weeks with issue ads urging support for the Port Covington development plan.

A lot of money is being spent to use TV to sell a project with huge consequences for citizens. It would be nice to know exactly how much.

But that's not going to be easy.

According to federal rules, such sales information need only be published by stations in connection with issue ads involving "a national legislative issue of public importance."

"Thus, broadcasters need not post the ad buys for a genuinely local issue," Andrew Schwartzman, of Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation, wrote in an email request for an interpretation. "Sometimes, of course, there is room to quibble."

Quibbles don't seem like much in a realm where stations are free to interpret, the FCC rarely enforces and dark money flows.

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